Thursday, June 9, 2011

Atheist Politicians FTW

I think we need more atheist politicians. Not just because atheists and agnostics are the most politically under-represented group in America, either. Though that is certainly an unfortunate reality. The latest US Census reports that 15% of Americans consider themselves atheist or agnostic, yet we only have one openly atheist politician in the entire legislative branch. Good on you, Rep. Pete Stark of California. That's 0.2% of the legislature representing 15% of Americans. It goes without saying that the executive and judicial branches are 0% atheist. Feels a bit lop-sided, doesn't it?

This speaks to the un-electability of atheists more than anything else, though. This is a documented and frustrating phenomenon, made even more confounding by the fact that atheism isn't what makes us who we are as people. Atheists don't have a unifying philosophy or morality, or a set of rules that govern our behavior. These are things that characterize religions, and atheism is not a religion. So it's not that I feel that atheists and the atheist world view are not being represented well in Congress. I do feel that atheists tend to have some things in common though, and they are the kinds of things that I would like to see more of in politicians.

Allow me to clarify a bit more here. Atheists are an incredibly varied group, coming from every conceivable background. We have different goals and philosophies, and we approach atheism in different ways. The Atheist movement has often been criticized for a lack of unity because of this, but bollocks to that. I like diversity. That said, there are some patterns that I've noticed.

First of all, atheists don't believe in a God. Obvious, right? You know what else we don't believe in, as an extension of that? The Afterlife. Reincarnation. The Rapture. That's right, we only live once and this Earth is all we're going to get. So we'd damn sure better take care of it. The conscious acknowledgement that we (and our descendants) are going to have to deal with the consequences of our actions in regards to the environment makes atheists more likely to give a flying fuck. I would certainly be flabbergasted to see an atheist politician supporting short-sighted environmental legislation. Religious conservatives, though? Not surprised. After all, they're expecting to go party with Jesus or a harem of virgins or whatever after they shuffle off this mortal coil. Life on Earth is transient, and simply not important in the grand scheme of spiritual immortality. But just in case, wouldn't you rather have the people who think this is all we're gonna get making the policy decisions?

Another thing atheists have in common? No religion. Total shocker, I know. The thing is, all of those people shouting about how homosexuality is sinful and gay marriage should be banned? The ones who think that women should be modest and subservient or are attacking female reproductive rights? Yeah, those ideas are based in religion. Muddy the issue all you want with your self-important, privileged whining and misdirection, there is not a single reasonable, factual argument for why gay people shouldn't be allowed to get married and adopt children, or why women shouldn't be able to control when and if they get pregnant. You take away the religious nature of the arguments and they fall apart. Now I'm not saying that there aren't any racist, sexist, or homophobic atheists. But I am saying that leaving religion frees you from the baggage associated with religious doctrine, and I would personally prefer that the people making decisions that affect equality do so with the facts foremost in mind. Not old books that say women should be silent and treated like slaves by virtue of their ovaries, or that contraception is evil, or that LGBT individuals are damned because of their biology.

Phew. Getting a little rant-y in here. So far I've been extrapolating atheist traits based on the lack of belief in God and rejection of religion associated with atheism, but the atheist movement does have its pet causes. Chief among them are separation of church and state and science education. Again, not all atheists care about these causes. They do not represent some unifying philosophy. But chances are that if you're even nominally familiar with the atheist movement you're pretty well informed about them.

To your average atheist, separation of church and state is a given. Why should religion have any influence over politics? Beliefs are personal and subjective, after all. Politics affects everyone. We're frequently dumbfounded by Christians who, accustomed as they are to being in the majority in this country, seem to mistake assuring protection for all for an attack on their beliefs. The government isn't saying that you can't pray. The government is saying that they can't endorse one religion over any other philosophy. They can't tell others to pray. If you really don't understand why this is an important distinction, imagine someone opening a town hall meeting with an invocation to Satan. Or a speaker at a high school graduation asking everyone to kneel with them and bow towards Mecca. Now imagine everyone else going along with it and demonizing you for saying it made you uncomfortable. You could probably stand to read a little more about privilege while you're at it. Again, this is something I want my politicians to care about because it benefits people of all religious philosophies. Not just whoever happens to be in the majority. It is immeasurably better to have a government that protects all religious philosophies without endorsing or being influenced by any. Otherwise you end up with someone else's religion and morality shoved down your throat or determining your rights. Trust me, that sucks.

I really shouldn't have to even address why good science education is important. It should be a given that children should be taught the facts as we know them to the best of our current ability. Unfortunately, that is not the case. School textbooks are constantly under attack by groups who want to re-write history to support their philosophy. Creationism is being pushed into science classrooms as if it were a valid scientific theory. Teachers are afraid to teach sensitive subjects, like evolution, for fear of arousing the wrath of parents. It's detrimental to children's education, and by extension the future of our country. If your ideas of how the Universe came to be or how life developed contradict the facts, then fine. Talk about them in philosophy class. But don't pretend they are irrevocable truths. The very idea of misrepresenting scientific fact, or twisting it to support an agenda, is repugnant to me. Atheists as a whole, having rejected the comforting philosophies of religion in favor of provable facts, tend to feel pretty strongly about this. And I want someone who feels strongly about this making educational policy decisions. The children are our future, after all.

So. Environmentalism. Equality. Separation of church and state. Science Education. Do you have to be an atheist to value all of these things? Of course not. Do I think atheists as a group are more likely to hold these values? Yes. And these are the values that I want to see in my politicians. Not because I think everyone should agree with me (though they absolutely should, seeing as how I'm right all the time), but because they benefit other people and the country as a whole. But atheists have a secret weapon. We are very good at being angry.

That's right, a lot of atheists are angry.  That's an amazing article, by the way. And sure, there are plenty of even-tempered accommodationists out there too...but if you show them something like this? Or this? You'll have them sputtering in a matter of minutes. And that's not a bad thing, damn it! Anger is incredibly powerful. Historically, it is one of the single most significant motivating forces for change.  Atheists in general are vocal, and not just on our own behalf. We don't like seeing any group having their rights abused, be they children or minorities or white, anglo-saxon males. I have more faith, so to speak, that an atheist politician will get outraged at injustices and abusive policies. And I want my politicians to be outraged! Because there are so many outrageous things happening in my country right now, it makes me want to scream!

Ahem. Again, to clarify, I don't think atheists are better by virtue of being atheists. But the qualities I see in the atheist movement? The reliance on reason and fact above all else? The outrage and compassion? The writers and scientists and activists? I respect these people, and I want people like them in charge of my country. They sure can't make things much worse.


  1. Dear Atheist. I like your post, and I couldn't agree more. However, that is fairly easy for me coming from Norway where religion is not often a political issue (I don't even know if our prime minister is religious, I doubt it though).

    Well, what I was really going to comment on is this: There is a great theory in moral psychology that states that what predicts peoples morals is the degree of openness. Conservatives tend to be less open, and liberals more. Not a shocker there... They also find that there are five basic moral principles that vary depending on your political compass. left wing (people open to experience) are far less concerned about things like belonging to a group and issues about purity (read:religion). It seems to me that it is reasonably fair to predict that atheists will end up on the left (or centre) end of the spectrum due to their openness to experience. What are your thoughts on that?

    I think this means that atheists do agree on a lot because they have the same type of moral foundation. And wouldn't their representatives always be left of centre or centre?

    Watch this very brilliant Ted talk to learn more:

  2. Thank you for the link and for your thoughtful comment, Line!

    Your point is well taken, and it does make sense that atheists would have a lot on common in terms of morals and political leanings. It's still a bit of a stretch for anything to really be considered an 'Atheist philosophy'. If Atheists could unite under the principles we largely agree on though, we could be an incredibly powerful force for positive change.

    I am also envious of your political system in which religion is not an issue. I would love to simply not know the religious preference of my political leaders. Unfortunately, it is often a major campaign point...especially in regards to the President.